Accessibility on Campus: Technology in the Classroom

Photo courtesy of Carolyn Brown '16 | Technology accommodations are necessary for many students with disabilities.

Photo courtesy of Carolyn Brown ’16 | Technology accommodations are necessary for many students with disabilities.


Veronica Brown ’16
Associate Editor

Technology has become an increasingly integral part of the modern learning experience and a new battleground in the fight for accessibility in the classroom.

The Office of Disability Services permits the use of laptops and other devices for a wide variety of students. Laura Rauscher, Director of Disability Services, determines whether technology would be an appropriate accommodation in a meeting with the student. Rauscher then writes a letter specifying the accommodations the student is entitled to, which the student presents to her professors at the beginning of the semester. “Whether or not the professor reads it is another thing,” said Kye Garcia ’16, who needs to use a laptop at all times.

Garcia reports several incidents of professors resisting technology accommodations. Once, a professor asked Garcia publicly why a computer would be necessary for a technology-free portion of the class. “He laughed at me and called me out and made me explain to him in front of my class why I would need a laptop during class when I have an accommodation letter that says I’m allowed to have it,” said Garcia.

Many professors feature lines in their syllabi that explicitly grant exceptions on the basis of disability accommodations. “If the professor writes in their syllabus, ‘No technology allowed, if you have an accommodation, talk to me,’ then you have to out yourself to get what you need in class,” said Sarah Orsak ’16, a chair of the Smith Disability Alliance. “It just feels like there’s no real forethought from professors about what that requires students to do, to ask to be the exception.”

Two of Garcia’s professors have revised their syllabi to suggest that the use of technology is not preferred but is available to anyone whose education it might aid. “It’s really great when you can find professors who will be receptive to suggesting changes to their accessibility policies,” said Garcia. “Not all professors are like that.”

With the rapid proliferation of technology, professors now have to deal with nuanced questions of accessibility that did not exist previously. “I don’t think the whole burden should be put on disabled people, but faculty should have more support about how to manage technology in the classroom,” said Rauscher.

“We try a lot to talk with faculty about universal instructional design,” Rauscher continued. “Anticipate there will be people with a range of learning needs and try to do some things proactively that eliminate some barriers.”

Examples of proactive universal instructional design include showing captioned films and providing searchable PDF documents even before students with accommodations come forward.

Educational Technology Services assists professors with both of these tasks as well as other questions about accessible technology. The Office of Disability Services is working with departmental chairs and directors to provide training and support for creating accessible instructional materials.

“If you’re taking the time to show something in class, you should want to make sure that everyone can access it,” said Orsak. “It just feels like a sort of lack of forethought, and that’s hurtful to feel like your educational needs aren’t being thought about by someone whose job it is to educate you.”

The issues are further complicated by the individual nature of accommodations –  the same solution does not work for everyone. Although some students require computers to learn, others are distracted by peers’ screens. These disparate interests must somehow be reconciled.

“Rather than assume an ‘average’ learner, we should design our courses and learning activities in such a way that the widest possible range of learners can excel in our classes,” said Professor Floyd Cheung, director of the Sherrerd Center for Teaching and Learning. “The focus should be on the pedagogical goals – not on the presence or absence of technology per se.”

In April 2015, the Sherrerd Center hosted a Teaching Arts Luncheon led by Provost and Dean of Faculty Katherine Rowe and SGA Curriculum Committee Chair Julia Collins ’17.

The event included role-play of professors and students negotiating situations involving educational tools such as Moodle, Google Translate and recorders for lectures. One focused on a student without a documented disability who benefitted from her own laptop but was also distracted by others online shopping in class.

“Our goal was to expand the frame of how faculty think about making technology decisions for their classes,” said Rowe, “to foreground how important it is to partner with students on how we address challenges of technology change and to make it clear that students as well as faculty have highly diverse views and needs on any given technology choice in the classroom.”

Some would like to see mandatory and intensive training for faculty, especially older, tenured professors who may not be as comfortable changing the traditional classroom landscape to include assistive technology.

“I’m working on how to work through my accommodations in my classes every single day, every year, every course, every assignment, I have to figure out how to do it within the realm of my accommodations,” said Garcia. “You need more than a 45-minute lunch talk.”

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